Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows
Gerardo and Leo picked us up at dawn at our hotel in San José, and three hours later we started our walk in the Sierra de la Laguna above San Antonio.
It was a lovely warm morning, and there were birds to be seen along the way, to boot. Single black-throated gray and Townsend’s warblers reminded us that we were in the southwest, and the San Lucas robin made sure we knew that we weren’t just anywhere in the southwest.
We also got to see the bizarrely dim-eyed angustifrons acorn woodpecker, and a heavily spotted spotted towhee that was presumably the aptly named umbraticola. A feral hog was a source of momentary puzzlement, and then it was higher, ever higher.
I was embarrassed at having to take three (three!) quick sitting breaks for out-of-breathness, but everyone was kind about it. I’m not used to being The Problem Client, and I’m not used to being Oldest In The Group, but I guess I’d better start resigning myself to it. At least each of my long pauses was another chance at leisurely enjoyment of the stunning desert scenery.
Then, at about 1200 meters, Gerardo mentioned that we were at the lowest spot he’d ever seen the bird. “And there’s one now!”
In early February 1883, when he was exactly my gasping, panting age, Lyman Belding set off alone for the Sierra. Belding found “the trail leading to Laguna … the longest, highest, and possibly the worst” in these mountains, “which were probably never previously explored by any collector.”
The effort paid off handsomely, however, when, on reaching the lower edge of the pines, Belding encountered “a beautiful new Snowbird,” which he dispatched and sent to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian for description, specifying that the new bird was to be named for Spencer Baird, “in consideration of [his] valuable ornithological services… in field and office, not the least of such services being his original, full, and accurate descriptions of so many North American birds.” Ridgway, finding the bird “pretty and very distinct,” obliged, concluding his formal description with the observation that the Baird’s Junco “is so markedly distinct… from all its congeners as to really need no comparison with any of them.”
We didn’t have to go anywhere near the pines.
Instead, all we had to do was plop down on the roadside and wait for this most beautiful of the juncos to re-emerge from the shadows to feed in the open.
The birds were nervous at first, perching in the bushes and chacking like tiny thrashers.
For the most part, all three were quite stolid, barely shifting their big feet when it came time to reach up to take another bite.
There was a little bit of occasional and unenthusiastic double-scratching, but never in the hour we watched them did I see the creepy shuffling so typical of Mexican yellow-eyed juncos, just short hops.
The birds grew more trusting as time went on, and I was able to repeatedly change my position, getting closer each time, without causing any obvious alarm. They were obviously alert to whatever passed overhead, though, reacting nervously to everything from turkey vultures to a canyon wren, and I suspect it was a flighted threat that finally chased the birds back into the dense, dark vegetation whence they had come.
Our walk back down the mountainside was nothing short of joyous, a dream of decades having finally come true. Minds and memories full of the junco, we paused to look at fruiting burseras
and weirdly exfoliating slopes.
Thanks to Bryan, Gerardo, and Leo for making this day such an astounding success. I can’t image what the rest of 2017 could possibly bring to match it.
August is the classic time to visit southeast Arizona. The monsoons have cooled the air and greened the desert, and all the late summer breeders are singing, the “Mexican” specialties are fledging young, and northern migrants are passing through in large numbers. As if that weren’t enough, August is high season for vagrants from the Pacific and from Middle America. Who knows what this year will turn up?
There are plenty of opportunities to help me explore my favorite landscapes on earth. Why not come along?
Thursday, August 4, 6:00 am
Fort Huachuca Birds and History, with Tom Wood
Friday, August 5, 3:00 pm
Saturday, August 6, 6:00 am
Sunday, August 7, 6:00 pm
Monday, August 8, 6:30 am
Thursday, August 11, 10:30 am
Thursday, August 11, 5:00 pm
Friday, August 12, 5:00 am
California Gulch, with Jake Mohlmann
Saturday, August 13, 10:30 am
Monday, August 15, 6:30 pm
Tuesday, August 16, 5:00 am
Wednesday, August 17, 5:00 am
Thursday, August 18, 5:00 am
Friday, August 19, 5:00 am
Saturday, August 20, 5:00 am
Eighty-five years ago today, on July 22, 1931, Alden H. Miller witnessed a series of events seen by few ornithologists before or since.
Collecting in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, Miller shot one of a pair of juncos attending young, Miller found that it was a male hybrid, with the back and flank patterns of the pink-sided junco but a paler, intermediate head. The female, a visually “pure” pink-sided junco, was spared.
Five hours after her mate had been collected, a new male had arrived, courting her with song and tail flitting. Miller shot this second male, a bird with pink flanks, intermediate head color, and a mixed back color.
An hour later, a third male had attached itself to the now twice-widowed female; the newcomer was quickly dispatched and found to be more or less a pink-sided junco, but with intermediate head color.
By noon, yet another male had given his life for science, victim to his interest in the bereaved female; this bird had the back of a pink-sided, the flanks of a gray-headed, and the head color of an intermediate junco. Miller wrote:
I am doubtful that these males were all unattached previous to their interest in female X…. There was no doubt of the attraction of the female for all of them, however…. No intolerance was evidenced by the female. Some of the males gathered food for the young. This indicates disregard on the part of the junco for differences in colors of sides and backs.
Any wonder juncos are so confusing?
Burns didn’t shoot it. He didn’t net it or trap it. He didn’t even pick it up from under a plate glass window.
A large black and white cat was seen along the fence of a pasture field, with something in her mouth…. It proved to be an [adult Henslow’s sparrow] in excellent plumage, with the exception of the primaries and secondaries, which were scarcely three-fourths grown. This, together with its extreme fatness, rendered it an easy victim to tabby.
We know that Burns skinned the bird. The fate of the cat is less certain.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Adolphus L. Heermann was killed, “having evidently stumbled and fallen,” when his collecting gun fired.
John Cassin, who knew him well, said of Heermann in earlier, healthier days that no better man could be had for a collecting expedition. In 1853, Cassin dedicated a “beautiful gull” to his friend, an
acknowledgment due to his accomplishment as a naturalist, and his perseverance and success as a scientific traveller.
In Washington, D.C., Spencer Baird was equally impressed by Heermann and his work in the field. On working through a collection of sparrows from the west, Baird encountered one that Heermann had sent from Tejon Pass, California, resembling a song sparrow but
differing very appreciably from a large number of specimens from Washington and Oregon…. I have come to the conclusion that the species is worthy of specific separation, and have accordingly named it Melospiza heermanni, after its accomplished collector and discoverer.
Today we “know” that that California bird is “just” a subspecies of the song sparrow. But there’s no reason not to call it the Heermann’s song sparrow, especially today.